Yesterday, Ross Douthat wrote an excellent column on marriage in today’s America. In particular, he asked whether the more progressive idea of marriage—the one that is apparently practiced by the upper classes—should be exported to the lower social classes.
More specifically, he questions whether what I call the feminist life plan works for upper class Americans and thus whether it should be adopted by the lower classes.
Two questions arise immediately.
First, does the feminist life plan produce more stable and durable marriages? Or is there another explanation for the seeming lower divorce rate in this cohort. (NB, the current divorce rate of 33% is better than the previous rate of 50%, but it is really not that encouraging... especially since it only applies to the first seven years of marriage.)
I expressed my own view in a recent post entitled: Did Feminism Save Marriage?
Discussing whether the lower classes should imitate the upper classes, Douthat describes the plan that they are being asked to imitate:
Many optimistic liberals believe not only that such imitation is possible, but that what needs to be imitated most are the most socially progressive elements of the new upper class’s way of life: delayed marriage preceded by romantic experimentation, more-interchangeable roles for men and women in breadwinning and child rearing, a more emotionally open and egalitarian approach to marriage and parenting.
One might rejoin that if the plan worked as well as its defenders say, we would not need to encourage anyone to imitate it. People tend naturally to emulate their betters, especially when they see something that works.
For their part, progressives believe that lower-class men are rejecting the feminist life plan because they have been caught up in an outmoded concept of masculinity.
The core idea here is that working-class men, in particular, need to let go of a particular image of masculinity — the silent, disciplined provider, the churchgoing paterfamilias — that no longer suits the times. Instead, they need to become more comfortable as part-time homemakers, as emotionally available soul mates, and they need to raise their children to be more adaptive and expressive, to prepare them for a knowledge-based, constantly-in-flux economy.
Seeing how well this argument fulfills the feminist dream, one suspects that it is ideologically driven. When facts are cherry-picked to sustain an ideology you can be fairly certain that something is wrong.
For his part Douthat grants that today’s marriage is not the same as yesterday’s:
For Americans of every social class, the future of marriage will be more egalitarian, with more shared burdens and blurrier divisions of labor, or it will not be at all.
And yet, the story is more complex than progressives would like.
Their professed beliefs notwithstanding, upper-class Americans, Douthat notes, are more socially conservative in their behavior than the lower-class:
First, it [the argument] underestimates the effective social conservatism of the upper-class model of family life — the resilience of traditional gender roles in work and child rearing, the continued role of religion in stabilizing well-educated family life, and the conservative messages encoded even in the most progressive education.
Notwithstanding their more egalitarian attitudes, for instance, college-educated households still tend to have male primary breadwinners: As the University of Virginia’s Brad Wilcox points out, college-educated husbands and fathers earn about 70 percent of their family’s income on average, about the same percentage as working-class married couples.
Douthat adds that these households remain more traditional:
The college-educated are also now more likely to attend church than other Americans, and are much less likely to cohabit before marriage than couples without a high school degree. And despite a rhetorical emphasis on Emersonian self-reliance, children reared and educated in the American meritocracy arguably learn a different sort of lesson — the hypersupervised caution of what my colleague David Brooks once dubbed “the organization kid.”
Again, this might show that those who choose to marry tend to be more traditional. In lower class households men increasingly do not make enough money to support a family. Thus, they are less likely to marry.
There is more to the story. Attributing it all to economics seems short-sighted. Andrew Cherlin agrees that the cultural revolution that began the 1960s and 1970s has destabilized marriage.
Wilcox summarizes Cherlin’s views:
It’s also about mores. And here Cherlin tells a largely conservative story. He notes that the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s—i.e., the sexual, feminist, and therapeutic revolutions of this tumultuous era—played a key role in making divorce, single parenthood, and nonmarital childbearing more acceptable to the public at large. Without the shifts in mores ushered in by these revolutions, the United States might have seen a decline in marriage rates in the last half-century, but it would not have seen the dramatic increase in family instability and single parenthood among the working class that it did. The Great Depression is instructive here, as Cherlin notes: “Despite a terrible job market in the 1930s, there was no meaningful rise in nonmarital childbearing because cultural norms had not changed.” So, America’s family problem is not just about money, it’s about changes in mores that have weakened the links between lifelong marriage and parenthood.
More surprisingly, Douthat continues, working and lower class men tend to practice the progressive cultural model more faithfully than do their upper class counterparts:
Meanwhile, as cohabitation and churchgoing trends suggest, many working-class Americans — men very much included — have gone further in embracing progressive models of identity and behavior than many realize, and reaped relatively little reward for that embrace.
It’s almost as though these people are following the feminist life plan more scrupulously and more unconsciously.
Near the end of “Labor’s Love Lost,” his illuminating new book on the decline of the working-class family, the Johns Hopkins sociologist Andrew Cherlin cites research suggesting that many working-class men, far from being trapped in an antique paradigm of “restricted emotional language,” have actually thrown themselves into therapeutic, “spiritual but not religious” questing, substituting Oprah-esque self-help for more traditional forms of self-conceiving and belonging.
Surely, it’s a fascinating observation. New Ageism, spirituality without a religion, produces anomic individuals who are seeking self-fulfillment without the concomitant sense of belonging to a community.
One suspects that the New Ageism comes to these men from their Oprah-watching wives. In the past machismo has thrived within matriarchal cultures. Jobless men are more likely to adopt more caricatured versions of male behavior… all the while depending on their wives and mothers for their support. Let's emphasize: machismo is a caricature of masculinity.
One wonders how the cohort of lower class men divides on racial and ethnic lines.
In conclusion, Douthat writes:
We may have a culture in which the working class is encouraged to imitate what are sold as key upper-class values — sexual permissiveness and self-fashioning, spirituality and emotivism — when really the upper class is also held together by a kind of secret traditionalism, without whose binding power family life ends up coming apart even faster.